Hisayasu Satô is best known as one of the ‘Four Devils’ of pinku eiga, one of the four directors who rocked the Japanese soft porn industry in the 1990s with their extreme erotic films such as The Bedroom (Uwakizuma: Chijokuzeme, 1992), Love – Zero = Infinity (Iyarashii hitozuma: Nureru, 1994) and Naked Blood (Nekeddo burÃ¢ddo: Megyaku, 1995). He has also made films in the non-pink industry, contributing the acclaimed ‘Caterpillar’ section to Rampo Noir (Rampo Jigoku, 2005), adapted from the work of mystery writer Edogawa Rampo.
A fictional story based on a non-fiction book about the Japanese porn industry, Love and Loathing and Lulu and Ayano (2010) continues to explore the themes of identity, alienation and communication that run through Satô’s work. The film focuses on a meek, bespectacled young woman, Junko, who tries to escape from an abusive mother and a dreary office job by becoming a porn actress. She constructs an alternative porn identity as the comic character Lulu and strikes an unlikely friendship with the streetwise, fiery Ayano, but soon the tension between her two lives becomes impossible to manage.
Satô attended the premiere of the film at Zipangu Fest, a new, innovative festival of Japanese cinema, and talked to Virginie Sélavy about what Lulu and Ayano reveals about the Japanese porn industry and Japanese society in general, the motivation behind his most extreme films and the influence of Kôji Wakatmatsu.
VS: Could you tell me a bit more about the book Lulu and Ayano was based on?
HS: The book is a collection of interviews with unknown porn actresses who work in the type of films where you learn on the set what you have to do that day. The interviews are about their motives, what drives them to do a job like that.
Are they actresses from AV (Adult Video, the equivalent of hard-core porn), pink film or both?
The girls interviewed in the book are strictly AV actresses, not pink actresses. There are over 100 interviews with girls working in that particular porn industry.
You said in the Q&A that followed the screening that the idea of adapting this book came from a producer, but you weren’t sure you wanted to do it at first. Why did this producer think you’d be a good person to direct the film? And what decided you to do it?
The producer started as a casting producer and Lulu and Ayano was the first film he worked on as a film producer. He became interested in working with me after seeing an old film of mine. Before we decided to do Lulu and Ayano, we were talking about doing another film together, which was a historical piece. But it was difficult to get the funding for that film, we worked on the project for two years but it didn’t work out. So the producer got the licence for the Lulu and Ayano project and he approached me and asked if we could do that one together. He showed me the book and when I read it, I thought it was tough material, they were talking about things like domestic violence and incestuous relationships. The main theme underlying the stories of the girls was the search for identity in the middle of the cruelty that they experienced in their daily lives. To exactly adapt the original book into film would have been too difficult, and it would have been hard to get funding. So I decided to take two or three girls from the book and turn them into characters, fictionalise them. My aim with the film was to show what it’s like to work in the lowest possible form of the porn industry. I didn’t want to make a film about this being a special or particular area, I really wanted to show that this is a normal problem for girls today in Japan and that the weakest members of society get affected by this social phenomenon, and I wanted to depict how they overcome this.
Did you draw on your work in the pink industry to make this film?
Of course I directed pink films and I also directed AV films until four or five years ago, films that actually included rape scenes, and the actresses I encountered on the sets were sensitive girls who were thinking about what they wanted to do in their lives. I thought it was really interesting and I wanted to focus on this in my film.
Do you think your film is a realistic description of the porn industry, not just in the depiction of the actresses, their work and the way they are treated, but also in the characters of the stalker and the scout?
Stalkers and scouts are now a social phenomenon. Porn scouts go to Shibuya, the shopping district in Tokyo and look for girls who have a void in their hearts. They look for the little wounds that will draw them into the porn industry. Stalking especially is an important phenomenon of today’s society. It’s really different from 10 years ago, with the internet it’s possible to communicate with someone you don’t really know. And I think in a way it really depicts this problem of communication, not being able to communicate with each other anymore.
This idea of communication is central to your work, together with characters who are loners or alienated from society. Do you feel Lulu and Ayano continues this theme?
Yes. I came to Tokyo when I was 18 and I personally experienced this gap between society and one’s self. Since then it has been a topic in my films and it is there again in Lulu and Ayano.
What’s interesting is that the film is clearly critical of the way the women are treated in the porn industry but at the same time there is a contrast between the bright world of porn and the dull, repressive office environment.
The office life is what Lulu’s mother wants for her and I took it as a metaphor, a symbol to depict her identity crisis and her conflict with her mother and with what society wants her to be, this nice girl working as an office lady. In a way you could almost say that when the scout approaches her it’s a positive moment; this offer to work as a porn actress seems like a ray of light because it enables her to escape from the expectations of her mother and of society.
Although the film is realistic in some ways, there is also a very stylised aspect, with a great work on colours.
I pay a lot of attention to the colours, the lighting and the set. I’m a photographer, so the look of the film is as important to me as the script and the writing. I always imagined how the film would look like. There is a colour choreography in the film. At the beginning, there are no colours, which should be taken as a metaphor for the situation of the girl at that point, and when she’s asked by the scout to become a porn actress the colours start to come in, in particular in the cosplay scene, but at the very end it returns to black and white. It reflects the inner situation of the characters and the final scene in black and white is like a restart, and it’s also supposed to be a message, a provocative question to the audience: what will happen when Lulu leaves the AV world?
It’s a very female-focused film, and you clearly have a lot of empathy for the actresses. At the same time, some scenes are filmed in a way that could be deemed titillating, for instance the scene where Lulu and Ayano throw beer at each other and take all their clothes off. What was the purpose of that scene and why did you choose to film it in that way?
Lulu and Ayano are two characters who have problems communicating with each other and with other people. I just wanted to show that through their friendship they find they share common points and this scene for me depicts the climax of their friendship. They literally strip down and connect in a way. That’s what it’s meant to be.
Compared with your earlier films, it’s not an extreme film at all, apart from maybe the splatter scene at the end.
For me, film necessarily reflects society, so it would be great to have a world without violence but as I observe it, there is a tendency towards more violence. Now maybe it’s different types, like psychological violence and inner violence, and I don’t know how my films will develop, maybe I’ll depict this inner violence. It’s interesting for me to see how society develops.
Why did you start in pink film? There have been a number of Japanese directors who were attracted to pink film as a faster way of becoming a director and because it allows a lot of freedom. Was it the same for you?
I felt a connection with pink film. Compared to Hollywood, they had very small budgets but films by, for example, Kumashiro Tatsumi, Kôji Wakamatsu and Tanaka Noboru, touched me more. So I felt I wanted to work in that area.
In what way did Wakamatsu influence you?
I wouldn’t say I was directly influenced by him but when I was younger I watched a lot of pink films and older films, including films by Wakamatsu, and I thought that they showed a way to express the repressed anger I felt towards society at the time.
Does that anger explain some of the more extreme imagery in some of the films, such as the self-cannibalistic woman in Naked Blood or the sado-masochistic experiment in Fuga Music for Alpha and Beta (Alpha to beta no fûga, 1989) or the vibrator torture in The Secret Garden (Himitsu no hanazono, 1987)?
Yes, in a way, you could say it reflects the anger I felt at the time, but the anger I express in my films is not very clear. With Wakamatsu, it’s clear that it’s the anger he feels against the political system, but what bothers me more is this invisible violence we experience every day, the individual being suppressed by the system, and this is the violence I’d like to express and which I feel angry against.
Do you feel that the more extreme films you made were connected to a particular time?
Of course society has changed, and so have I. But there was also the criticism I got from cinemas and producers who thought that there shouldn’t be so much violence in pink films. It wasn’t my aim to be so radical, but some of my younger fans always talk to me about this particular aspect, Naked Blood in particular.
In a way, some of your earlier films could be described as horror films. Would you agree?
I’m not so much into genres. Everybody said that the splatter aspect of my early films was very strong but I wasn’t really aware of that. I wasn’t thinking I was making a splatter film or a horror film. For me to show all this blood was necessary to express what I wanted to say. After I was criticised by producers there were a couple of films where I tried to find other means of expression, to find an antithesis to the violence.
In which films for instance?
Love-Zero=Infinity and Rafureshia (Sukebe tsuma: otto no rusu ni, 1995) for instance. Love-Zero=Infinity is a vampire story set in contemporary society. It was a metaphor: I wanted to show that the Japanese society of today is a society of vampires. The imperial system is the backbone of Japanese society as I see it. So the background of the film is the Shôwa era, which is when I grew up. This Shôwa era is what defines me and I wanted to reflect that in the film. I was born on August 15, 1945, when Japan lost the war. I wanted to show the political atmosphere of the era I grew up in. My life started with a prayer – to peace and war veterans – after we lost the war.
If you had the choice, would you rather make pink or non-pink film?
There is a crisis of independent cinema in general in Japan, including pink film. Cinemas are closing and the production opportunities are diminishing. If pink films are shown on TV, the violent scenes are cut. But as I want my films to be seen by as many people as possible, I try to not be so focused on pink films.
Interview by Virginie Sélavy, translation by Maria Roemer